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Backbone designer/producer David Sirlin uses his Soapbox to vociferously query how successful MMOG World of Warcraft educates its players, suggesting that the game actually teaches the wrong lessons on a multitude of levels.

David Sirlin, Blogger

February 22, 2006

18 Min Read

Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft has over 5 million subscribers worldwide, as of this writing. It's the most successful massively multiplayer game on Earth right now. This well-crafted game has put other games in its genre to shame. Blizzard is a great company, and I might even end up there some day, though this article probably rules out that possibility.

World of Warcraft

Before we get to World of Warcraft though, let's pause to learn from Raph Koster. Raph is no stranger to MMOs, as he was the design force behind Ultima Online and Star Wars Galaxies. He wrote an excellent book called A Theory of Fun that you all should read. I tend to put "fun" in quotes, because it's a pretty nebulous thing that I don't know how to define. Fun is like pornography; I know it when I see it. Raph was brave enough to attempt an explanation of "fun."

Fun is learning in a safe-environment.

Those few words have a lot of implications. Games are mini-worlds where we can try out all sorts of ideas and possibilities, and see what works and what doesn't. Games let us fail with little penalty and then let us try again. Games teach us how to time our jumps, how to aim, how to solve puzzles, and how to manage resources. They teach us strategy: when to attack, and when to avoid a fight. It would be great if they taught a wider range of lessons, but as Raph says, that's up to us game designers to make it happen.

Reflecting on Raph's ideas, I was initially very happy because it explained a lot of things. First, a lot of parents complain about what impact games have on children, but those parents are generally only seeing the trivial surface of the game, rather than what the game is REALLY teaching. Chess appears to be vaguely about war (it has knights and castles and kings), but it's really a game of controlling space, of reading the opponent's mind, of trickery and tactics and so on. Grand Theft Auto appears to be about shooting cops and hookers, but it's actually a game of exploration and freedom. There is value to exploring a virtual world that lets you do things you can't do in the real world. Don't be fooled by the gangster facade.

Even more to Raph's point, I reflected on what Street Fighter taught me: an awful lot. Where to even begin? For starters, there's tactics and strategy. When should you attack and when shouldn't you? You have to understand the critical points in a match, the situations that blow the game wide open. If you are winning, you need to avoid these situations, if you're losing you need to create them. Street Fighter taught me about yomi: knowing the mind of the opponent. You can't just play the odds and do the textbook-correct responses, you have to adapt and anticipate your opponent's moves. The game is merely a medium through which you play against the other player. Some players develop skills in planning, while others develop their skills at improvisation and adapting to any situation they are thrown into. I learned first hand that when all seems lost, if you push, push, push and never give up, it's still possible to win.

And yet all that is only a tiny fraction of the lessons I've learned. Street Fighter is a one-on-one game, so you must rely on yourself to win. You can't mill around while your friends do the work for you. Self-reliance and continuous self-improvement is the only successful road. And yet, I also learned that no man is an island. Our tournament structure has always been open to all comers, so that an undiscovered talent from Idaho who trained secretly in his basement can show up to our biggest tournament and win it all, if he has the skill. No need to qualify or be level 60 in an RPG or any of that. And yet, this mythical person never ever materialized in my 15 years of playing the game. The only way to become good is to play against others who are good. It takes a village to make a champion. You can't turn your back on the whole world because you NEED the community to improve. You must learn and train with them. It's pretty hard to do that without making some friends along the way, too.

Another very important lesson was that winning at Street Fighter is a meritocracy. Your race doesn't matter. Your religion doesn't matter. The only thing that matters in a tournament is your ability to win. The community looks up to those who can win, regardless of ethnicity. There is no substitute for growing up in an environment that cares about results, rather than race. Nothing a teacher or parent could ever say measures up to that life experience about race-relations.

There are also a lot of things us Street Fighter players take for granted. They are truths so self-evident, that we never talk about them because it never even occurs to us that these aren't givens. Here's a few examples:

  • A fair game does not give material advantages to one player over the other

  • A fair game gives each player equal opportunity to bring whatever legal materials he wants (in our case, you can choose any character you want, no need to grind him to level 60. All players have immediate equal access to all characters.)

  • It's ok (and the entire point!) to bring to the game a) more knowledge than your opponent about the nuances of the game, and b) more skill than your opponent.

  • Time invested should count for nothing in a fair game. It might take me 1 hour to learn a few nuances and gain a certain level of skill and you 1000 hours. The hours don't matter; only the knowledge and skill matter.

  • I'll say it again: winning is a meritocracy.

  • Finally, playing a fair game is what it's all about. It would never occur to us to play a game where one player gets to do 50% more damage because he has a level 60 Chun Li.

Raph's theory is really holding up for me. Street Fighter was so fun for me because there so many things to learn. Looking back, these are life lessons that I couldn't do without. From the strategy of the workplace to reading the mind of others, to a sense of fairness, I am rich with reward from my gaming background.

But lately, Raph's words have really started to scare me. I started to think "What is World of Warcraft teaching all these kids?" I've played the game since the "Friends and Family" alpha test two years ago, and I've read the forums ever since. I have a very good idea what the game is teaching, and it's downright frightening. Unlike the uniformed parents who are afraid that GTA is going to ruin our youth, I'm not afraid of the silly facade of World of Warcraft: I'm afraid of what's it's really all about, deep down! That's a much more powerful and influencing thing than the mere surface (Street Fighter isn't about cartoon fighting, that's just a surface, too).

So let's put the cards on the table. Here is what World of Warcraft teaches:

1. Investing a lot of time in something is worth more than actual skill. If you invest more time than someone else, you "deserve" rewards. People who invest less time "do not deserve" rewards. This is an absurd lesson that has no connection to anything I do in the real world. The user interface artist we have at work can create 10 times more value than an artist of average skill, even if the lesser artist works way, way more hours. The same is true of our star programmer. The very idea that time > skill is alien.

2. Time > skill is so fundamentally bad, that I'm still going to go on about it even though I started a new number. The "honor system" in World of Warcraft is a disaster that needs to be exposed for health and safety reasons, if nothing else. This system allows players to work their way through the ranks, starting at rank 0 and maxing out at rank 14. Winning in pvp gives you honor points, and at the end of each week, your performance is compared to that of other players, and you gain or lose ranks. Now, losing also gives you points, but not as many. The system overwhelming rewards time spent playing, rather than skill.

What is the health and safety danger I spoke of? You might think that if you waltz into this honor system, and perform better (which in this case mainly means you played longer) than everyone else on your entire server, that you would become rank 14. Not by a long shot. Your gains are capped each week, so it will take months and months to gain rank 14. Once you get up to rank 10, you are now competing against people who play the game 10 hours per day and up. There is no limit to how much a person can play, so players are driven to play every waking moment (forget having a job or social life) for fear that if they don't, some OTHER player will do so and be ahead in rank.

The idea that time > skill has gone from a merely fundamentally bad idea, to being actually dangerous, addicting people to the point of fatigue and death. No wonder China's new laws about MMOs are addressing this problem. MMO games must only award players full experience points for the first three hours of each day, half experience for the next two hours, and no experience after five hours. (Logging off for at least 5 hours will reset the system.)

3. Group > Solo. You can forget self-reliance, because you won't get far in World of Warcraft without a big guild. By design, playing alone (even if you are the best player in the world) will get you worse loot than if you always play in 5-man dungeons. If you always play in 5-man dungeons, you'll always get worse loot than if you play in 40-man raids. The player base has been hit over the head for so long with this notion of 40-man raids, that players are taking that as given. I see so many people who have been fooled into thinking this is justified, that it actually scares me. They think that you shouldn't be allowed to get good loot unless you do something with 39 other people, because that's harder. Coordinating 40 people is hard, but so is winning a Street Fighter tournament, which you have to do by yourself. Some personality types want to do things with 39 other people, but my personality type certainly doesn't. I have to wonder why the 40 person raids have good loot at all. To me, doing something yourself is far more valuable, and a much more interesting test than getting 40 people to coordinate fairly mundane tasks.

Unfortunately, the game offers no difficult solo content leading to good loot. (Note to picky readers: there is some, but it's soooo far out of whack with raid rewards that we can safely ignore it, the same way Blizzard does.) The designers must be so extraverted, that they can't fathom the introvert point of view.

4. Group > Solo. I'm not done with this yet. As an introvert, I'm pretty outraged that this game is marginalizing my entire personality type. The developers repeatedly confirm that 40-man raids deserve the most powerful items. Many of the players are brainwashed by this poor assumption, often saying "It's an MMO, of course you have to group with 40 other people do accomplish anything." Ironically, World of Warcraft was originally founded on exactly the opposite idea. The game started off by saying that EverQuest had that philosophy, and that Warcraft will not. So much for that.

Here's an obvious point that is taken for granted by posters on http://terranova.blogs.com/, but completely lost on about half the World of Warcraft forums: playing by yourself in MMO is perfectly valid thing to do. You are part of the player-driven economy. You see a living world around you with people doing their business, laughing together, and arguing. You can group with people when you like, or not if you don't feel like it. It's an experience wholly different than a single-player game, and no serious person could think otherwise. The best way to put it is that it captures the concept of "being alone together" with other people. Going to a movie by yourself so you share the experience with the others in the audience. Going to a study hall where other people are studying, rather than staying in your room alone. There is a very big demand for the ability to "be alone together" in a shared social environment that allows grouping and social interaction, but does not force it by making almost all end-game content in the form of 40-man raids.

Warcraft—maybe accidentally—hit upon this concept, and now seems spit on it and all those who appreciate it. If a Blizzard developer read this, his PR department would say they are not spitting on this play-style, but unfortunately the game design speaks louder than words. "Spit on" is exactly how I feel. But far worse is the idea that millions of children are learning that doing things on your own is bad. Albert Einstein accomplished far more in the field of physics by himself during off-time as a patent clerk than a 40-man raid of so-so physicists ever would. I want little Johnny in Idaho to learn that lesson, but he sure won't find it in World of Warcraft. 40 mundane people with a lot of time would put Albert Einstein to shame any day of the week in this game.

5) Guilds. The tools for creating and maintaining a guild in World of Wacraft seem benevolent enough. After all, they encourage cooperation. Unfortunately, they create a social situation totally alien to me in the real world: a constant "us vs them" mentality. In the real world, I am part of many different communities, and I have varying levels of influence and seniority in each. I'm fairly prominent with Street Fighter players, and have a lot of influence in how national tournaments are run. I'm known by about 0.01% of Magic: the Gathering players, but I do put my toe into their pond a fair amount. Meanwhile, in Warcraft, I live in a world of "guild-only events." You're either with a guild, or you're nobody to them. I can't imagine being in only one IRC (chat) channel at a time, or choosing only one gaming community, yet I can only join one guild at a time. It's a very weird social environment with the same dangers as nationalism and flag-waving.

6) The Terms of Service. The very idea of using the terms of service as the de facto way to enforce a certain player-behavior goes against everything I've learned. A game should be a system of rules that allow the player to explore. If the player finds loopholes, then the game developer should fix them. It's never, ever the player's fault: it's the game developer's fault. People who currently make deals with enemy faction (Horde or Alliance ) to trade wins in battleground games are not really at fault. They are playing in a system that forces anyone who wants to be rank 14 to do exactly that. A line in the Terms of Service saying that you shouldn't behave this way changes nothing, and teaches nothing.

Or consider the humorous example of Lord Kazzak. He is an "outdoor raid boss." That means he's a big monster that wanders round the world, and you need 40 people to kill him. You don't get to go into your own instanced dungeon to fight your own personal copy of this guy; there is one wandering around the server and you all compete to kill him so you can get his good loot. When Lord Kazzak was added to the game, Blizzard also added a list of Terms of Service rules that would make your head spin. None of these rules were hard-coded; they were all "squishy" rules added on top of the actual game rules. And now for your reading enjoyment, the Lord Kazzak Official Rules of Engagement (I did not make these up; they are real!):

This policy is an extension of the current in-game harassment policies.

PvE Ruleset.

When a group of players has engaged Lord Kazzak, any other players interfering in the encounter may be given a warning, regardless of faction, as in the examples below:

A group of Alliance characters has legitimately engaged Lord Kazzak and a Horde character engages Lord Kazzak as well (Horde player receives a warning).

A group of Horde characters has legitimately engaged Lord Kazzak and a Horde character engages Lord Kazzak as well (the second Horde player receives a warning).

PvP Ruleset.

When a group of players has engaged Lord Kazzak, any same-faction players interfering in the encounter may be given a warning as in the examples below.

All other possibilities to join the battle are allowed.

A group of Alliance characters has legitimately engaged Lord Kazzak and Alliance character engages Lord Kazzak as well to disrupt this raid without any PvP solution for the Alliance group (the second Alliance player receives warning).

Here's some more things that will get you banned:

“Playing too much," using a rogue/warlock combo to lure bosses too far from their spawn points, fighting on rooftops, entering unfinished areas (why are they accessible at all?), buying gold or items on eBay (eventually the courts will probably overrule them on this), collaborating with the other faction in battlegrounds, "using terrain exploits to your advantage," player-created casinos (that merely use the in-game "/random" command), player-created bingo games, profanity (even though there is an in-game language filter, to say nothing of free speech), posting on forums about whether a guild is full of Blizzard employees, posting on the forums about why you were banned for posting about something seemingly constructive, advertising a gay and lesbian friendly guild that's a safe haven from the endless use of the words “gay” and “fag” in the general chat channels, having a name such as "JustKidding," "CmdrTaco," "TheAthiest," or "roflcopter"... and a whole lot more things, too.

These examples go on and on, but the basic idea here is that Blizzard treats the players like little children who need a babysitter. There are mountains of rules in the terms of service that tell you that you shouldn't do things that you totally can do in the game if you want. Why they don't just alter their design and code so you can't do these things is beyond me. But this mentality is drilled into the players to the point that they start believing that it's ok. They start believing that it's not ok to experiment, to try out anything the game allows in a non-threatening environment. Well—that's a dangerous thing. That's the point at which the game stops being "fun" by Raph Koster's definition, and it's also the point at which the game can no longer teach. The power of games is that they empower a player to try all the possibilities that he can think of that the game rules allow, not that they have pages of "rules of conduct" that prevent you from creative thinking.

Group > Solo?

But we all know that World of Warcraft hasn't really stopped teaching. Although it's ability to teach is highly impaired by the entire "Terms of Service" approach, it's still teaching literally millions of children that time spent is more important than ability and that group activities are strictly superior to personal improvements and self-reliance.

This problem is so troubling, that I feel a personal need to take action. The only thing I can think to do, though, is to design an MMO that teaches the right things. Look for that on store shelves in 2012 or so. For my next trick, I will write a proper Terms of Service for an MMO. Stay tuned.



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About the Author(s)

David Sirlin


David Sirlin (www.sirlin.net) is currently a Producer / Game Designer at Backbone Entertainment. He's a multiple-time national Street Fighter tournament champion, author of the book Playing to Win, co-organizer of the Evolution Fighting Game Championships national tournament series, past member of Street Fighter Team USA (representing America at an annual international tournament held in Japan), and one of the main subjects of Bang the Machine (a documentary film about the competitive Street Fighter scene). He also did a two-year stint in the World of Warcraft.

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